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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalUK edition4 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundNebula Award winnerHugo Award winnerThe history of American spaceflight is not only an exciting record of courage, discovery, and scientific triumph, it’s a great deal deeper and more diverse than many people have been taught. Women were involved with the program from the very beginning, most notably as computers, math prodigies working insanely difficult calculations by hand to get launches running smoothly and going exactly where they needed to go. And yes, women trained as astronauts.

Once the Soviets got Sputnik beeping its way into orbit, the space race was on. Any space geek, or at least anyone who’s seen the movie The Right Stuff, should be able to rattle off the names of at least a few of the original Mercury Seven astronauts: men like Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, and John Glenn. Fewer people know about the Mercury 13, a group of women who underwent privately funded physiological astronaut training at the same time as the Seven. There was a school of thought that women might make good astronauts because they’re smaller and lighter than men, definitely a non-trivial factor when you’re trying to get a rocket into the sky.

They were known as the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, and all of them were experienced pilots, with the most well known of the group, Jerrie Cobb, having logged over 7,000 flight hours and set three world aviation records. The data showed that the women did as well as, and in most cases, even better than the male trainees at the battery of stress tests they had to endure. But in the end, NASA just wasn’t interested in putting women into space, and they implemented an entirely random qualification that astronaut candidates had to have jet fighter experience, which, naturally, none of the women had. It would not be until 1983 that Sally Ride would become America’s first female astronaut, while of course the Russians, always happy — then as now — to embarrass America whenever possible, had put Valentina Tereshkova in orbit by 1963.

All this provides a rich historical canvas onto which Mary Robinette Kowal has rendered perhaps her finest novel to date. The Calculating Stars is the first in an alt-history saga that serves as a prequel to Kowal’s Hugo-winning novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which introduces us to astronaut Elma York and her rocket scientist husband Nathaniel on Mars in their senior years. The novel takes us back to an alternate 1950s, and the catastrophic meteorite strike on Earth that led to an accelerated space program.

Elma and Nathaniel are vacationing in the Poconos during that fateful March day of 1952. The meteorite hits just off the eastern seaboard, obliterating D.C. completely and triggering rampant destruction and tsunamis not just all up and down the coast, but globally. Surviving by sheer good fortune, Elma and Nathaniel eventually make their way to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, where they find that the highest ranking official in the line of presidential succession to survive was the Secretary of Agriculture. It quickly becomes clear that the greenhouse effect from the meteorite strike will get so severe that it will render the planet uninhabitable within decades. The only solution for survival is to colonize space.

The story then details, through Elma’s perspective, the development of a space program. The book is a bit on the long side, but unfailingly readable as Kowal covers a broad swath of both hard-science/technical as well as emotional and sociological terrain.

As Elma — whose skill at doing math in her head is practically superhuman — battles crippling anxiety attacks as she finds herself an unintentional celebrity due to her guest appearances on a children’s TV show, the narrative also works in such issues as climate change, grief and survivor’s guilt, institutional racism and misogyny, mental health, and the bonds of family. None of it ever feels preachy, though it’s easy to get frustrated at Elma’s stubborn resistance to getting on meds.

As a couple, Elma and Nathaniel are just about perfect. They never seem to get tired of rocket launch metaphors for sex, or sex. But it must be said that Kowal’s handling of Elma as a character is simply master-class work. She’s smart in ways that the women who worked as computers back then actually were smart, but she’s broken in some very real ways as well, and some of the better passages detail her growing awareness of her own blind spots — particularly in regards to the realities of race at the time. She and Nathaniel are Jewish, with the history of bigotry that entails, but her own ignorance of the African-American experience is brought home to Elma with shocking clarity as she pushes for the inclusion of women in the astronaut program. As in the novel, it really did happen that a fully qualified black woman pilot was made to withdraw her application.

I have always felt that the best works of science fiction are those that portray a pioneering spirit. So many tropes are taken for granted in SF that it’s exhilarating to find a story that shows humanity on the threshold of historical turning points, breaking barriers, taking that bold and dangerous but thrilling step into uncharted territory for the very first time. In every way, The Calculating Stars is the very best kind of science fiction. It’s not only a gripping alternate history of the dawn of spaceflight. It’s also about other barriers being broken, about women and people of color claiming their place in humanity’s voyage of discovery, stepping into uncharted territory that had been previously denied to them. Because despite the way people seem to love embracing divisive and hateful ideologies, the simple truth remains: we won’t survive unless we’re willing to do it together.

Followed by The Fated Sky.